Experimentation in Sound and Vision
Sonic Youth -- with their pulsating tapestry of discordant guitars, impassioned vocals and ferocious, compulsive drum patterns -- was formed in New York City in 1981. The core group originally performed with Glenn Branca on his Symphony No. 3 (1981). The core Sonic Youth members include guitarists Thurston Moore (born July 25, 1958 in Coral Gables, FL), Lee Ranaldo (b. February 3, 1956 in Glen Cove, NY), and bassist Kim Gordon (female, b. April 28, 1953 in Rochester, NY). Their first recording was a live concert at New York's Radio City Music Hall in December 1981, and was released on Branca's Neutral label.
Their first recordings as an independent group are captured in an ambitious trio: Confusion is Sex (Netural 1983), Kill Yr Idols (Zensor 1983) the Sonic Death: Sonic Youth Live cassette (Ecstatic Peace! 1984). These records emerged from the Manhattan-based, post-punk movement No-Wave -- epitomized by the Brian Eno-produced anthology "No New York" (1978) -- which embraced the use of unusual song structures; aestheticized noise and dissonance as key elements of sonic texture; and introduced performance art into concert music.
Bad Moon Rising (Homestead 1985) was their first album to garner a considerable distribution in the US and the United Kingdom; it featured No-Wave avant-garde vocalist and performance artist Lydia Lunch (b. 1959 in Rochester). The critical and listener response was significant, especially for the evocative "Death Valley 69", a horrifying meditation on the Charles Manson slayings. The album followed a conceptual approach; each song flowed seamlessly into the next, and the overall mood is one of poetic serenity and introspective melodicism.
Residency at SST
In early 1985, the group picked up drummer Steve Shelley (b. June 23, 1962 in Midland, MI) whose dense, focused percussion work penetrated Sonic Youth's most esteemed recordings: EVOL (SST, 1986), Sister (1987), and Daydream Nation (Blast First, 1988).
EVOL revealed some of Sonic Youth's aesthetic underpinnings that had gone unaccounted for, such as the influence of 1960s Hard Bop jazz (Blue Note's Eric Dolphy, Art Blakey, and Cannonball Adderley); the post-modern minimalism of John Cage; and the non-musical, but equally mined field of cinema art (Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, and John Cassavetes). Evaluation of this period must include the track "Shadow Of A Doubt", with its sensous, hazy musical landscape, and lyrics describing a mysterious encounter; the song references in text and spirit the Alfred Hitchcock film (1955) of the same name.
The albums Sister and Daydream Nation placed their fascination with the atonal and dissonant within a pop framework which spoke for their cohesion and coherence as a band. The two albums, which today retain their unity of vision and instrumental grace, work quite well with
the Meat Puppets' album Up On The Sun (SST, 1985) and Husker Du's New Day Rising (1985), each espousing the energy and vitality of punk with an ever-expanding vision of the lyrical and musical possibilities of avant-garde experimentation.
The high production values and technical fluency of Sonic Youth (like their accomplished SST labelmates Husker Du, Black Flag, Meat Puppets, and Minutemen, each worth exploring) provided a musical haven for those seeking solace from the overproduced candy-coated experience of mid-1980's pop (Madonna, Billy Ocean, and New Kids On The Block) and the so-called heavy metal decadence of Motley Crue, Skid Row, Poison and their ilk.
Major Label = Death?
Their move to the major label Geffen Records (DGC) in 1990 left many listeners to proclaim Sonic Youth's descent into irrelevance. Their following album Goo (1990) -- which featured a cameo by Public Enemy's Chuck D -- continued their emphasis on the musically avant-garde. Their unusual lack of focus and the sense of self-conscious experimentation on this album weakens its status compared to the transcendent unity of Daydream Nation.
The following effort for Geffen Records, Dirty (1992), is characterized by the sonorous, vivid production work of Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage). The album features the band's first set of overtly political statements; songs such as "Chapel Hill", "Swimsuit Issue" and "Youth Against Fascism" direct criticism at the hypocracy of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The sound of grunge -- a synthesis of 1970s hard rock (using its distorted guitar sounds and intensity minus the guitar solos and other signifiers of virtuosity); a few traces of punk; and a new loud-soft dynamic embodied in the work of Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and TAD -- made its entrance in this album. Thurston Moore had been instrumental in signing Nirvana to Geffen Records, and the unprecedented impact of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Pop #6) caused Sonic Youth to be viewed in terms of a "grunge aesthetic".
Their presence on the Lollapalooza tours brought a wider audience, though their ever-critical older core group questioned the acquisition of commercial listenership. Sonic Youth collaborated again with producer Butch Vig on their third effort for Geffen, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994, Pop #34, UK #10). The album continued with their cleaner, full-bodied sound, while adopting a firmer verse-chorus-verse structure in most of their songs. Though this recording charted higher than any of their previous works, they had alienated their older community by embracing grunge performative approaches, while limiting their use of feedback, noise, and space, among other signifiers of indie-label experimentation.
Washing Machine (1995), A Thousand Leaves (1998) and Murray Street (Smells Like 2002) represent stronger efforts as the group moves away from the harsh - though pleasurable - dissonance of their 1980s SST albums. In its place, Sonic Youth has found a place for warm, atmospheric improvisation and captivating rhythmic undertow. They continue to tour and make a deep impression on listeners; they have become especially popular in Japan, Germany, and France since 2000.
1986 EVOL SST
1987 Sister SST
1988 Daydream Nation SST
1989 Touch Me I'm Sick/Halloween Sub Pop
1990 Goo DGC
1992 Dirty DGC
1994 Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star DGC
1995 Washing Machine DGC
1995 Live in Holland Sonic Death
1996 Live in Texas T.E.C. Tones
1998 A Thousand Leaves DGC
1999 Goodbye 20th Century SYR
2000 NYC Ghosts & Flowers DGC
2000 SYR 5 SYR
2002 SYR 6 SYR
2002 Murray Street Smells Like
2002 In the Fishtank Fishtank
2003 Live at the Royal Albert Hall Steamhammer/SPV
2004 Sonic Nurse DGC
2004 Hidros 3 (to Patti Smith) Smalltown Supersound